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School Choice Group's Chairman Takes Over Pa. Recovery District

UPDATED

Pennsylvania Secretary of Education Ronald Tomalis has named Joe Watkins, the chairman of Students First PA, a pro-school-choice advocacy group, as chief recovery officer of a school district that last week was designated as in "financial recovery," the state education department said in an Aug. 17 statement.

As the Philadelphia Inquirer story highlights, Watkins will have broad authority to remake the Chester Upland district in a variety of ways. He has the power to convert traditional public schools into charters, close schools, and demand a new teachers' contract. Perhaps not surprisingly, a Chester Upland school board member told the Inquirer that the decision to appoint Watkins was "shocking" because she viewed Watkins as not "objective."

Gov. Tom Corbett, a Republican who appointed Tomalis last year, signed legislation this year giving the state schools chief the power to appoint "recovery" officials like Watkins. "The total cost of implementing this bill is, at present, just under $6 million. The cost of not acting is to lose a generation of young people to a failed system," Corbett said in a bill signing statement.

It's important to make clear that Students First PA is a state chapter of the American Federation for Children, and not a state-level arm of former District of Columbia schools chief Michelle Rhee's StudentsFirst organization. (Rhee's organization is active in Pennsylvania.) Both the federation and Rhee's group have expressed some support for the collective-bargaining reforms initiated last year by Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker, a Republican. Walker gave a school choice policy speech at an event hosted by the federation, while Rhee said last year that Walker was taking on important issues, although she did say some of what he wanted went "a little overboard." (UPDATE: StudentsFirst's Mike Phillips has told me that the group does not support Walker's reforms in Wisconsin.) Still, some might be tempted to put them in the same category of education advocacy groups.

Tomalis' decision highlights both the increasing political power of state school superintendents to take direct action at the local level and the burgeoning profile of national advocacy groups at the state level, although to be fair to Watkins, he does have an extensive background in Pennsylvania and is not an "outsider," as the epithet is sometimes used, at least at the state level. Still, this appears to be an example of the tension that can exist in school policy between state leaders with lots of authority and local governing bodies who feel pressure to get on board with major policy changes or get steamrolled.

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